"I love making myself look ridiculous!"
Reporter: Simon Sladen
Dateline: 9th November, 2014
Panto: "It's hard work, but it's a lot of fun."
As the old adage goes, "Good things come to those who wait." Tim McArthur and Simon Wegrzyn met in 2012 at a pantomime audition. McArthur was already cast. Simon didn't get the job. Two years on the two are re-united and will play the role of Nurse Nelly and the Man in the Mirror in the Beck Theatre, Hayes' 2014 pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The theatre in which they met was to become McArthur's festive home between 2011 and 2014. After four years at the Courtyard Theatre, Hereford, McArthur is set to play his fifth Dame in pastures new. "I'm very excited, but very nervous," he tells me. "At Hereford we got to know each other very well. They knew my style and I knew their style; it was a big family."
This will be McArthur's first season working for commercial company Qdos Entertainment in a production staged by One From The Heart. His co-star, on the other hand, is no stranger to the production company, last year appearing at the Wyvern Theatre, Swindon as Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk alongside Keith Chegwin. "I feel very lucky that I've done a year with Qdos and they've want me back," Wegrzyn tells me.
As the Man in the Mirror, Wegrzyn is following in the footsteps of Gok Wan who debuted in the role last year at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Although the role will be similar, it has been tweaked for the Hayes production. As Wegrzyn explains, "he's actually been rewitten for this panto. He's kind of a double agent. He pretends to work for the Wicked Queen, but he actually works for the good guys."
Having appeared in various pantomimes during their career, I wonder why they keep coming back to such a seasonal form of theatre that keeps them away from their friends and family whilst everyone else is tucking into their turkey dinner back at home.
"I love panto," beams McArthur. "It's hard work, but it's a lot of fun. I stand on stage and I think 'Oh my god, I'm so lucky. I get paid to look silly dressed as a woman. I feel very, very lucky."
As Nurse Nelly and the Man in the Mirror, Wegrzyn and McArthur will have plenty of opportunity to ad-lib and engage with the audience, something they both adore. "I do love to go off script just a little bit and react to what the audience is giving you," Wegrzyn adds with a gleeful smile upon his face. "You have to allow them to not dictate, but inform what you do, but that makes it more fun."
Performing up to three shows a day for up to two months can be gruelling work and both actors highlight the importance of passion and commitment in their work. "The main thing is to enjoy it," says McArthur. "If you aren't, the audience can tell and they won't enjoy it," sentiments echoed by Wegrzyn, who adds, "a quiet audience doesn't mean they're a bad audience. As long as you serve the story and provide a good piece of storytelling, they'll really love it."
Speaking to Wegrzyn and McArthur, it is clear that both value the importance of conveying the narrative in an engaging way through strong characterisation. But they are also keen to highlight the importance of learning how to do this from others. As MacArthur says, "as an actor, you never stop learning. I've taken something from every job I've done over the years."
McArthur recounts how he used to stand in the wings at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester and watch Peter Shorey work the audience. "He was a fantastic Dame," McArthur recalls. "He knew how to work the audience."
A busy director and presenter, as well as annual Panto Dame, McArthur tells me that in recent years he's noticed a reluctance from young performers to observe and learn from the greats. Wegrzyn certainly does not fall into this camp and recounts how much he enjoyed working on Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales that ran at the Shoreditch Town Hall earlier this year. "It was so brilliant as we got to meet Philip and he taught us how to tell a story," Wegrzyn enthuses. "It's definitely something I'll never forget."
But, whilst learning from others is important, both actors' careers demonstrate a willingness to explore creatively, make new work, instigate projects and in doing so establish themselves as multitalented practitioners with a wide portfolio of skills.
Wegrzyn tells me his mantra has always been, "if you want to do it, do it. It's tough, you've got to make it work. Do it," an inspirational and motivational one for anyone making their way into the profession.
Wegrzyn has done just this and as well as recently writing a sitcom and filming a pilot for BBC Three, he is now working on new character Cassidy Chevelle, whose activities can be seen online via her own YouTube channel.
"She's really rough at the minute," Wegrzyn explains, "but she's a celebrity obsessed fitness freak, with orange face, botox and scouse brows."
Performing is all about becoming someone else and Wegrzyn tells me that that's the part of acting he particularly enjoys. "I love making myself look ridiculous and making myself look grotesque, ugly or weird," he says. "I love playing a character and putting my own spin on it."
Whilst Wegrzyn's alter ego is a fitness fanatic, McArthur's is a lady of the cloth. But just how was the world-famous Sister Mary McArthur born?
"I was doing a lot of cabaret at the time and got booked for the Purcell Room at the Southbank," MacArthur explains. "I was doing my one man show and I thought 'I need something to open act two, I need something fun.' I was comfort eating on the Curly Wurlys, The Sound of Music was on and I thought, 'I'll dress up as a nun and get everyone to do 'Do-Re-Mi' with me.' So the actor in me said, 'You can't just go on and be a nun, you have to have a bit of a backstory about you.'"
Influenced by the musical Nunsense, McArthur's Sister Mary was born; a nun "who's trapped in a convent who doesn't really want to be a nun and wants to be in show business." Having been spotted by the producers of the Jermyn Street Theatre, Sister Mary then transferred to do a full two-hour show at the intimate West End venue and has been playing theatres, clubs, bars and studios ever since. "Not a lot of people know this," adds McArthur cheekily, "But she's the secret love child of Elaine Paige!"
Having accomplished so much between them, including national tours with Helen Lederer in the case of McArthur and nakedly bumping into Dame Judi Dench in the case of Wegrzyn, I ask them whether there's still things waiting to be ticked off their career wish list?
"I'm ready to do some more serious plays I think," ponders McArthur after recounting how much he enjoyed appearing in Assassins and shocking his friends at how menacing he was.
"I would love to do a musical," says Wegrzyn. "Lots of casting directors only see me as a straight actor—mainly because I was inexperienced when I previously auditioned for them. But that was over five years ago. Now I'm all singing, all dancing! The dream is Emcee in Cabaret and Zazu in The Lion King."
Always on the lookout for opportunities to widen their skillset and repertoire, Wegrzyn and McArthur are both excellent and inspirational ambassadors for the theatre profession. But what is the secret behind their success?
As McArthur concludes, "you have to be true to yourself. Life is too short. Prepare for the sacrifices you'll have to make. It's a fantastic business."
Tim McArthur and Simon Wegrzyn appear in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Beck Theatre, Hayes from 13th December 2014 to 4th January 2015.